Pakistani lawmakers approve new guidelines for ties with U.S.

Closed border crossing

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Pakistani parliament on Thursday approved guidelines that will frame a reset of the country’s relations with the United States, paving the way for an end to a nearly five-month disruption in ties that began when errant U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.

The guidelines include a call for a halt in U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory, but put no mechanism in place to enforce such a ban. Most Pakistanis see the air campaign as a blatant breach of their country’s sovereignty.

The guidelines, unanimously passed by lawmakers, also did not explicitly address when the U.S. can resume using Pakistan as a transit country for Afghanistan-bound NATO supplies. Instead, the guidelines leave the issue of those supply routes, shut down since the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers Nov. 26, up to President Asif Ali Zardari’s administration.

Outside parliament, lawmakers said the supply routes probably will be opened soon, though no time table has been established. The only condition parliament imposed was that the NATO material moved through Pakistan cannot include weapons or ammunition — a moot point since the alliance’s convoys had been carrying only non-lethal supplies.

Washington probably will welcome Pakistani lawmakers’ actions. Though Pakistan has proved to be an extremely difficult partner in the war on terrorism, the U.S. continues to seek its cooperation in pursuing Al Qaeda-linked militants who have found sanctuary in the country’s northwest, and in facilitating talks between Afghan officials and the Afghan Taliban leadership. Pakistan’s role in bringing a peaceful resolution to 10 years of war in Afghanistan is viewed as significant, largely because top Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan.

The Nov. 26 attack, which Pakistan insisted was unprovoked and deliberate, was just one of a series of events last year that deeply angered Pakistanis. Ties between Islamabad and Washington were severely damaged by the slaying of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor in the eastern city of Lahore. The U.S. commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the military city of Abbottabad in May also incensed Pakistani military and civilian leaders because they were not informed of it in advance.

The ban on NATO convoys after the November incident affected roughly 40% of the alliance’s non-lethal supplies, which move by trucks from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to crossings on the Afghan border. Islamabad also ordered the U.S. to leave an air base in southern Pakistan that in the past has been suspected as a launch pad for CIA drone attacks.

Drone strikes ceased for six weeks after the Nov. 26 attack, but resumed in mid-January.

The Pakistani government also decided to embark on a wholesale review of relations with the U.S., establishing a parliamentary committee charged with drafting guidelines for a revamped partnership with Washington. The review was slowed by opposition parties that wanted to make a cessation of drone strikes a condition to the reopening of NATO supply routes through Pakistan. But on Thursday, those parties acquiesced and backed the guidelines.

Outside parliament, Sen. Afrasiab Khattak from the Zardari-allied Awami National Party said it will be up to the government to decide how to enforce parliament’s call for a halt to drone strikes. “Parliament doesn’t want to take over the powers of the executive and decide everything for the government,” Khattak said.

Until now, Zardari’s administration has publicly condemned drone strikes but has not taken any steps to prevent their continuation. The U.S. has hailed the drone campaign as being extremely effective in eroding the capabilities of Al Qaeda and other militant groups in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. While the frequency of drone strikes has dropped in recent months, Washington is unlikely to heed the call to abandon the tactic altogether.

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-- Alex Rodriguez

Photo: Trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan sit in the Khyber Pass in Pakistan after closure of the border crossing last November in response to the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. airstrike. Credit: Shahid Shinwar / Reuters

 
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